Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Posts tagged “KJV

On the Road: Manifold Greatness in California

On Thursday, February 24, a crowd of nearly 90 students, faculty, staff, and local community members gathered to celebrate the opening of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the William H. Hannon Library at Loyola Marymount University, and to hear a talk by Dr. Bart Ehrman, New York Times bestselling author and James A. Grey Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill.

Keynote presentation at the opening of Manifold Greatness at Loyola Marymount University. Photo courtesy Loyola Marymount University.

Keynote presentation at the opening of Manifold Greatness at Loyola Marymount University. Photo courtesy Loyola Marymount University.

In a keynote talk titled “What Kind of a Text is the King James Bible? Manuscripts, Translation, and the Legacy of the KJV”, Dr. Ehrman introduced our community to a brief history of Bible translation and his perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the KJV as both a work of literature and a theological text. Ehrman’s conclusion? The King James Bible is indisputably one of the greatest works of English literature ever published. The rhythms of its verses and the richness of its metaphors influenced poets, writers, and speechmakers, including such Americans as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. But due to changes in the English language since 1611, the theological biases of the translators, and problems in the textual basis of the translation, Ehrman considers the KJV one of the “worst study Bibles” one could use to reflect upon the original intentions of the Bible’s authors.

Opening reception for Manifold Greatness at Loyola Marymount University. Photo courtesy Loyola Marymount University.

Opening reception for Manifold Greatness at Loyola Marymount University. Photo courtesy Loyola Marymount University.

After Ehrman’s provocative talk, which you can watch in full here,  attendees moved out to the atrium to enjoy a beautiful reception and continue the conversation while viewing Manifold Greatness and the companion rare books and manuscripts exhibition Singular Wisdom: The King James Bible and Early Printed Bibles, which features treasures from LMU’s Department of Archives and Special Collections including copies of the Vulgate, Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible, and Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, and a second edition of the King James Bible on loan from the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA.

A second program the following week by Dr. Stephen Shepherd, a medievalist from LMU’s Department of English, introduced attendees to the Wycliffite Bible – a predecessor of the KJV — which he placed in the context of the intellectual movement of the time that advocated the vernacularization of erudite knowledge and scholarly precision itself.

In the coming weeks, LMU is hosting two additional programs that will continue to engage our interfaith community with varying perspectives through which to consider the influence of the KJV. A gospel concert with guided commentary will celebrate the lasting influence of the KJV in the music of the Black church, and a panel presentation between LMU Theological Studies faculty from varying Christian faiths considering the KJV into a Catholic context.

Jamie Hazlitt is the Outreach Librarian at the William H. Hannon Library at Loyola Marymount University.


Going Global

Dr. Scott Munger. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District.

Dr. Scott Munger is culturally adventuresome Biblical translator who has overseen Bible translation work in some 40 languages around the world. That international experience helps provide a unique perspective on American religious, social, and political life. Scott is currently Vice President of Biblica, the producer of The Holy Bible: The New International Version. He and his family—wife, children, and grandchildren—now live in Colorado.

Here is an interview that Pikes Peak Library District, currently hosting the Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition,  recently conducted with Dr. Munger about Bible translation.

Question: How do you feel about the King James Version of the Bible? 
Answer: I treasure and revere it like I would a famous ancestor—but one who lived in a different age and time.

Question: Biblica has created the NIV translation of the Hebrew Bible. How did the Biblica processes differ from the processes of King James Version translators’?
Answer:  The processes are remarkably similar. Both began with the call for a fresh translation, both were supported by dedicated people from various Christian denominations, and both were undertaken as a group project.

Question: Did that involve translating from the original languages of the Bible?
Answer: Yes, the KJV and the NIV are each done from the languages of the original biblical texts: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Likewise, translators of both versions considered history and tradition (e.g., the KJV relied a great deal upon the work of William Tyndale, killed in 1536), but they also considered present and future needs. And most important, the translators of the KJV and NIV tried to represent the Word of God in the language of their day, that is, with vocabulary and style that would speak to the hearts of their contemporaries.

Question: We know that 48 translators worked on the King James Bible of 1611.  How many translators did it take to come to the NIV version that Biblica publishes now?
Answer: The Committee on Bible Translation is an independent group of 15 scholars from many Christian denominations. The CBT determines the NIV text. But their work builds upon the efforts of over 100 original contributors. Unlike the KJV, the NIV is a “green” text. During the half century since its original conception, thousands of helpful suggestions from readers and scholars worldwide have made the NIV translation what it is today.

Question: What goals did the Biblica translators have while translating the Bible?
Answer: The NIV’s goal, similar to that sought by the KJV, is to create a balance, designed for “the best possible blend of transparency to the original documents and comprehension of the original meaning” (www.niv-cbt.org).

Question: With its soaring language, the King James Bible is very poetic. Do you think that some of the translations today lose the beauty of that poetic edge?
Answer: Beauty is hard to define, and is often in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to language, beauty of both form and content must be considered. A skillfully worded poem about the glories of a microwave meal will never win a Pulitzer. The real, inner beauty of the KJV comes from its content. Note the last two verses of Psalm 23, below, the first from the KJV and the second from the NIV.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (KJV)

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (NIV)

Modern people are often charmed by older forms of language. The KJV’s “… est” and “… eth” caress our ears. But we need to consider that what sounds quaint to us was common to people in 16th and 17th century England.

Question: With so many new translations available, is the King James Version still important and relevant today?
Answer: The KJV endures as a testimony and example not only of great Bible translation and great English, but of great thought. The former is due to the heart of those who undertook the translation. But the thoughts they conveyed are those of the original authors, men and women—inspired, I believe, by a gracious God—all of them now considered world-renowned prophets, rulers, poets, and reformers.

Rachel Stovall is a Community Relations Specialist at Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs, CO.


Shakespeare did not write the King James Bible, no way, no how.

In Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Walter “Monk” McGinn (played by Brendan Gleason, here to the right of Liam Neeson) says, “Do you know who Bill Shakespeare was, sonny? He’s the fella that wrote the King James Bible.”

The occasion of Shakespeare’s birthday—traditionally celebrated April 23, though no one knows the precise date—is a good time to offer some reflections about a persistent myth. Since the late nineteenth century, some people have suggested that Shakespeare was involved in the translation of the King James Bible. Just to be clear,

NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. THIS IS NOT TRUE!!!

The reasons this legend developed are complex, and not entirely known, but the idea is preposterous in itself. We know the names and identities of the roughly four dozen King James Bible translators (the number is rough because over time some died or dropped out and had to be replaced). All but one of them were clergymen. The exception, Henry Savile, was included because of his prodigious learning and particularly his exceptional knowledge of Patristic Greek. Indeed, save a few political appointments, all the translators were eminent linguists, the very best scholars of ancient languages—Hebrew and Greek, but also Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic—in England. Some, like Lancelot Andrewes and, judging from the Translators’ Epistle to the Reader, Miles Smith, were also fine writers. But this was not why they were chosen. The translators were not especially interested in what we think of as literary style, and they certainly were not aiming to produce a masterpiece of English prose. Their overwhelming concern was to produce to the most accurate English translation possible of the Bible. The many years of work involved hours and hours of discussions of the most minute details of language: points of grammar, syntax, vocabulary; careful comparison of verses, clauses, and individual words in all the ancient languages, including Latin, as well as contemporary translations in European languages, and all previous English Bible (Tyndale, Coverdale’s Great Bible, Geneva, Bishops’, Rheims); also discussion of theology, ancient history, archaeology. Not very sexy, but that’s what made the KJV!

Literal accuracy was the goal, which is why the English of the KJV sometimes sounds foreign, as in using the word “to know” for having sex (Gen. 4), or Hebrew idioms like “the skin of my teeth” (Job 19) or “the apple of my eye” (Deut. 32), which make little sense in English. Shakespeare, according to Ben Jonson, had “small Latin and less Greek.” This was a little unfair. By our standards, Shakespeare’s Latin was excellent, he just wasn’t as remarkable a scholar as Jonson. There’s no evidence, though, that Shakespeare had more than a little grammar school Greek, and he likely had no Hebrew at all. He lacked the basic skills necessary for Bible translation. He was also not a clergyman; since many clergymen considered players as next-door to brothel-keepers, it’s inconceivable anyone would have considered him as a candidate for the translation team. Finally, although Shakespeare and the King James Bible have been lauded as the twin pillars of English literature since at least the Victorians, they aren’t really much alike. Shakespeare can write fine prose, but he more often writes in verse, and what sets his style apart from other playwrights is the metaphorical density of his language and his invention of words and idioms. The King James Bible is entirely in prose and generally eschews complex metaphor. The vocabulary is also extremely limited. The language of Shakespeare and the language of the KJV aren’t the same.

The one piece of evidence often hauled out in support of the “Shakespeare wrote the Bible” argument is a bit of “code” from Psalm 46. All sorts of people mention this, from Bishops to conspiracy theorists. It goes like this. In the KJV, count 46 words from the beginning of Psalm 46: “shake.” Count 46 words from the end: “spear.” Shakespeare turned 46 in 1610. Thus, so it goes, Shakespeare has encoded his signature in the psalm to mark his secret involvement in the translation. (The more committed cryptographers delve into Kabbala and further supposed number patterns, but I’ll leave this wackier stuff aside.) So many problems with this! First the second 46 count has to leave out the word “selah.” It’s not a word from the actual Psalm but an indicator of performance (no one knows quite what it means), yet it is there on the page, and if you include it “spear” is 47 words from the end, not 46. Furthermore, “shake” and “spear” are in many earlier English Bibles as well, in roughly the same places (45-47 words from beginning and end). Spears are plentiful in the Bible, because they were in ancient Palestine, and people with spears tend to shake them. No great mystery. What’s really in evidence here is an amusing coincidence, discovered by someone with codes on the brain, probably in the 1890s. No one seems to have noticed it before then, which makes it seem rather ineffective as a signature. It’s absurd that Shakespeare would have been involved in translating a Bible, but it’s even more absurd that if he had been involved he would have left his mark in so obscure and meaningless a fashion. Some compare this to medieval stonemasons who inscribed their names on stones in place no one could ever see, presumably as a declaration to God. Shakespeare was not an anonymous craftsman, however, but a popular and successful playwright, whose name appeared prominently on his published work. The more you know about Shakespeare, and the more you know about the King James Bible, the sillier this idea becomes. Imaginative writers like Rudyard Kipling and Anthony Burgess have played around with the myth in their fiction, but that’s where it belongs. In fiction, not in reality.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Manifold Greatness website launches today!

We are delighted to announce the launch today of Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, a major new website marking the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible of 1611.

More than a year in the making, the site includes stunning image galleries ranging from Early Bibles to Modern Life, interactive timelines, original video interviews, and still more special features that allow you to compare translations side by side, examine pages of a 1611 King James Bible in depth, and listen to excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, which takes much of its text from the KJB. (Special bonus: the recordings are from a Folger Consort / Oxford (Magdalen College) performance!) Resources for Scholars guide academic researchers to rare books and other source materials.

Children’s and family pages include a wealth of images, information, new craft videos, games and activities, and more—the screenshot we’ve highlighted here is from Making a Ruff. Trust us, we could go on… but why read about it when you can explore it for yourself? Consider this your personal invitation to jump into the new website today. We’re so happy to share it with you.

The website is part of Manifold Greatness, a multi-faceted project of the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, with assistance from the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin. It has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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